WASHINGTON-Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada have more in common than each confessing adultery in the past week-they both have been a part of the same secretive Bible study in a house on Capitol Hill.
The governor said at his press conference Wednesday that he was working with the "C Street group," a Bible study of Christian politicians that has been something of an accountability group. Ensign, too, who announced his own extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer last week, had reportedly sought support from the group. While Sanford was more highly regarded as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, Ensign was also on the short list of candidates. Neither has much of a chance at national office now, especially since both espoused traditional family values.
According to some reports, several of the C Street housemates knew about both Ensign and Sanford's affairs months before the news broke, and had been working with the two to resolve their extramarital relationships.
The C Street house, two blocks from the Capitol, keeps a very low profile because high-profile people live within its walls. Current housemates include Ensign and Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as well as Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). While none of the lawmakers has yet talked very openly about the house and the Bible studies and prayer meetings that go on inside, they are more reticent since the two affairs became public knowledge. At time of publication, DeMint, Coburn, Wamp, and Stupak had either not returned calls or declined to comment to WORLD reporters about the house.
In an interview conducted before the recent scandals, DeMint, a long-time resident of the C Street house, described how the weekly Bible studies have helped him grow in his faith during his time in Washington.
"I have a small group I meet with, and we continue to pray and encourage each other," said the senator who hails from the same state as Sanford. "Meeting people of faith up here, it is not a majority, but as God said, 'We are salt and light.' So there are people of faith who have been sprinkled in Washington, D.C."
Calling the C Street one of the "best parts of being up here," DeMint, who has participated in the studies for the last seven years, said it is a group for fellowship, accountability, encouragement, and prayer: "We kind of make that commitment to each other to get together once a week. Sometimes it's a Bible study; we always have a spiritual or scriptural thought. But sometimes we just talk about each others lives, try to get to know each other, remind each other that we are not important, that it's just a title."
One of those spiritual lessons for DeMint has been the reminder that God is in control, which he says is an important fact for Christian lawmakers to remember: "People who don't believe that try to got more and more control here and do more and more things from here because they may believe there is a God but don't see him playing an active role in our community."
Sanford, a three-term congressman from 1995 to 2001, pointed out that he was part of the C Street Bible study when he worked in Washington, a group he said "asks hard questions," but did not indicate whether he lived there.
The house is run by an opaque foundation called The Fellowship, the group that also sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast each year in Washington. The Fellowship's leader, Doug Coe, has been referred to as being "stealthy" because he believes that good deeds shouldn't be done in the public eye. The Fellowship doesn't have a website and offers little public information about its mission or operations.
Youth With a Mission Washington, D.C., owns the C Street house, which is valued at $1.8 million. The owner's umbrella international organization YWAM, however, has no listings of locations in Washington. The website for YWAM DC is a shell, displaying no information.
Rev. Rob Schenck, who leads a Bible study on the Hill inspired by C Street, wrote on his blog Friday that "all ministries in Washington need to protect the confidence of those we minister to, and I'm sure that's a primary motive for C Street's low profile." But he added, "I think The Fellowship has been just a tad bit too clandestine." Schenck has himself sent a letter to Sanford calling for his resignation.
Congressional staffers for the lawmakers said the secret nature of the study and the house is by design so members can build trust and be completely open and honest with one another without worrying that what they say will find its way into the press. This, staffers added, gives high-profile lawmakers the comfort level to participate. But the staffers acknowledged that keeping a regular gathering of public officials private is a double-edged sword that can lead to media stories emphasizing the shadowy nature of the group. Several staffers, who know very little themselves about the house and its Bible study, have unsuccessfully tried to convince their lawmakers to be more public and open about the C Street activities.
"[The politicians] have nothing to hide, but I do think they fear the media misreading them," Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in an email, describing the place as a sort of a "Christian frat house." "C Street is cloaked in mystery because they want their private, off-the-record times of Bible studying and fellowship to be confidential."
That kind of spiritual accountability is a rarity in Washington, said Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson, a former Nixon confidant who went through the fire of his own scandal in the 1970s in the wake of Watergate.
"That is one of the major problems of politics," he said. "You don't have accountability groups generally because you don't want to confess your sins to someone who may be running against you in the future. Politicians keep their cards close to their chests."
"If he genuinely repents, he can be restored to his family and regain his own self-worth and identity," Colson said about Sanford, adding that the governor should finish his term and then exit public life: "I think it's dishonorable to get elected to something and withdraw from it."
WORLD reporter Jamie Dean contributed to this article from North Carolina.